On What Kind of City One Central Park Place–AOL Time Warner’s–Rising? We’re Older, Sadder, Tougher…But Don’t Let Anyone Tel

High above the westernmost curve of Columbus Circle, a massive computer-generated billboard ripples against the steel and concrete skeleton rising out of the earth.

“Five Star Living at The Center of everything,” reads the blue-backed advertisement for 1 Central Park, the future headquarters of AOL Time Warner.

The lower-case “e” fronting “everything” is probably some reference to the new electronic world that a behemoth like AOL Time Warner is supposed to represent, but it seems strangely appropriate as this city crawls toward the end of its darkest year.

We had Everything, but now we have everything.

Of course, the changes started long before Sept. 11, as Tom Wolfe so wisely pointed out in the last issue of The Observer . The jaw-dropping technological, financial and social changes that caused this city to undergo the largest transformation since Robert Moses was king crested along with the end of the 20th century and began to recede in the murky primordial soup of the 21st.

And then on Sept. 11 came the distinct feeling that all that progress had been sucked beneath the surface in a tidal wave of grief and fear.

As we struggled to get up off our asses, we kept hearing the same refrain: New York had finally become part of America.

But that wasn’t quite right. The rest of America may finally have been moved to embrace us-and frankly, that felt pretty good-but if anything, this city had become more European, like Paris or London. In a single day, we acquired a century’s worth of sadness; a world-weariness that no amount of sandblasting or refurbishing could remove, the way it did when we rebuilt this city in the 90′s.

And still the categorization does not quite work. There is no other city in the world that burns with the level of ambition that New York does. We bleed it here. And that’s why we’re suddenly so disoriented. Ambition is founded on self-regard and no small amount of selfishness. It is primarily about looking out for No. 1. And in the past 10 years, we New Yorkers have been brilliant at that. Not that we didn’t have our role models in a two-term President who put his libido before most everything else and, to a lesser extent, a Mayor who regularly veered off his largely effective course to lash out at whoever-predecessors, racial groups, his ex-wife, the press, etc.-crossed him.

Frankly, the city couldn’t have gotten so far so fast without that sense of purpose, that nearly blind ambition that powered this city for the last decade. The cocky investment bankers, the infantile computer programmers, the flamboyant chefs-all drove this city to a never-before-seen pinnacle.

And then on Sept. 11, the incomprehensible unfolded before us. We watched as hundreds of firefighters, police officers and ordinary citizens put their humanity before their ambition. Their selflessness and their sacrifice leveled our selfish world. The things we once perceived as courageous-our trips to Cuba, our flirtations with drugs and Viagra, our careless infidelities-suddenly were shown for the childish needs they really were.

The Center of everything had lost its center.

Over the last three months, the city has felt like it’s encased in glass. Sounds and feelings seem muffled and distant. Conversations seem strangely out of sync, like those old chop-socky movies from the 70′s. And there are days when the acrid taste of fear and stress seems to be fouling everyone’s breath.

The city is sleepwalking. Its denizens are waiting for their new Mayor, for the war to end, for the economy to right itself. They’re waiting for the future of New York to unveil itself, for the moment when all those giddy things that got sucked under by the rip tide of this last year come roaring back on a new wave of ambition.

But it may reemerge as something else. There’s a real difference between ambition and purpose. Ambition drives New York in the good times; purpose guides New York when it’s been chastised-by war, by economic trouble, by social hurricanes. New York, still a monster, starts working close to the ground, wondering all kinds of things: Are you all right? (To the poor.) Can we do anything for you? (To the dispossessed.) Are you in pain? (To the injured and grieving.) In good times, New York has a bad habit of turning its back on-even disdaining-the disenfranchised for not coming along for the ride. But in adversity, are we great!

And so this Center of everything becomes in everything centered: in faith, in purpose, in its own brand of driven, impatient, manic, edgy, confrontational kindness: Can I help you . (No question mark.) It’s not a place where charity-like Scrooge’s giant turkey in the window sent down to the Cratchits-is gratefully received. In a city with an ideal of civic enfranchisement, where citizens are told they ought to be getting schooling and feeding and subways since we’re New Yorkers, dammit , we are used to biting the hand that feeds us. It’s a matter of civic pride. (Note to President Bush: $20 billion or not, don’t expect too many New York votes in 2004-although if you want to be buried here, we have a nice history of constructing marble sarcophagi for Republican Presidents.)

But we are good people, we swear it. And the raw ambition that drove us two years ago can and will be resurrected and converted into something still raucous, but modified and perspectived.

Like 1 Central Park, for example. What a retrograde, self-important name for a building: the center of the universe, it implies. If you’ve had a couple of martinis, you can reconfigure the structure into a great, fat dowager holding her own against the park. The top of the glass mountain is designed like a palace, a throwback to the insistent royalism of the last decade. But it won’t last. By the time that building opens, the wit of New York will have seen it for what it is; like a Victorian lady stepping into the last new century, it will be forced to shorten its skirt, cut back its pomposity. The hundreds of children of running into its theater devoted to the Jazz at Lincoln Center, the raw straightforward capitalistic intent of its AOL Time Warner affiliation, the greatness of the park itself, will all conspire to force its viewers to see the building on their own terms and either adopt it-as they have with Rockefeller Center-or leave it to the tourists, as they have with … some other buildings.

And as you back up, and see the city from farther away-from a long shot, as in the movies, or a helicopter if you’re one of those people, or from the heart-stopping height of one of the skyscrapers we no longer take for granted-we’ll view New York as what it is now, and almost always is: a city under construction, physically and spiritually, where the ghosts will continue to wake us during those dark, dark hours between 3 and 5 a.m., and where the children run in the front doors of the dowager skyscrapers with a giddy, unawed possessiveness, waiting to take the town for themselves, dreaming of building it up themselves someday and, if knocked down (the way they have seen now that buildings can be knocked down), building it up once more themselves.

Five Star Living at the Center of everything. Good night, fair city. See you in the morning.